Why Your Cat Bites and How to Stop It
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Ouch! Yet again, your cat got a hold of your fingers – and all you were doing was petting it! At first, sudden nips from your cat can be off-putting. Heck, it might even hurt your feelings depending on your relationship with your feline companion thus far. Yet, cat biting isn’t always an explicitly negative thing. Sometimes, it may not have anything to do with you at all.
Why do cats bite their owners for no reason? Firstly, cats never bite for “no reason.” Your cat might bite you for various reasons, including overstimulation from petting, as a sign of affection, controlling behavior, rough play, or fear. Your cat might bite another cat if it’s behaving out of territorial aggression.
It’s challenging to identify when your cat is nipping you due to any of the listed reasons. At times, there may be multiple factors contributing to its behavior. The comprehensive guide below will you help you identify potential causes for your cat’s biting and how to stop them to prevent further injury or worsening behavior.
What Does a Cat Nipping You Mean?
Cats are just like people in that they differ greatly when it comes to how they express their emotions, especially affection. For instance, think about humans’ love languages. Some people enjoy “physical touch” as their primary sign of affection, so they may hold hands and hug a lot. The same can be true of your cat.
A cat that nibbles on its human while being pet or during a cuddly moment may merely be expressing its fondness. However, since this isn’t the most apparent display of love, you’ll need to be mindful of how and where your cat is biting you.
For one, a “cat love bite” should never break the skin. If it does, it’s more likely that your cat is acting aggressively, and you have not realized it yet. Secondly, these love bites should never target sensitive areas like your face. So, if your cat is nibbling on your knuckles or even strands of your hair, there’s a strong chance it’s just feeling warm and fuzzy and wants to show it.
Make sure to look for other signs of affection to reaffirm that your cat is indeed acting out of happiness, such as:
Headbutting (or bunting): Cats like to rub their heads against their human companions, but it’s not just for cuddling. Cats have scent glands on numerous spots across their bodies. When a cat rubs up on you, it’s essentially marking you, strengthening your bond, making your cat more secure in your relationship.
Kneading: This behavior has several meanings, a few of which are related to your cat’s contentment and territoriality. A lovey-dovey cat may be digging its paws into a surface (or you) for physical comfort or using its paws’ scent glands to claim its resting place.
Purring: There is no definitive reason why a cat might purr, but personal experience and scientific observations thus far tell us that it’s a sound of contentment. Some believe that kittens developed the sound to tell their parents that they’re ok and safe. Into adulthood, purring is related to healing and pleasure.
Why Does My Cat Grab My Hand and Bite Me?
The most likely explanation for why your cat may be grabbing and biting your hand is because it’s in hyper-aroused during playtime. Rough physical play is quite common for young kittens. Chances are, if you’ve let a nibble or a pounce slide once or twice, you’ve inadvertently taught your cat that this behavior is ok. This only encourages the behavior further until it becomes a problem.
Still, “play aggression” is a habit that even adult cats have a hard time letting go. Experts say that this behavior reaches its peak in the mornings and evenings, as it parallels when your cat would engage in hunting behavior in the wild. Compounding factors that might predispose your cat to this behavior include a short attention span and an inclination to boredom.
This means that cats with few or no toys (or no interest in their current toys) are more prone to bite you. Regardless of your cat’s personality and wealth of toys, it’s important to understand that playful aggression is natural and your cat should not be punished for it (even if it hurts!). Instead, it’s best to look for avenues to redirect their excess energy and discourage your cat’s fixation on your hands.
The San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) suggests these do’s and don’ts while correcting your cat’s biting behaviors:
Stop play in a calm manner when it’s time to put the toys away
Redirect your cat’s playful energy toward a toy if it goes for your hands or another body part
Recognize your cat’s outward signs of hyperarousal during play (e.g., dilated pupils, crouching, etc.)
Give your cat a bell on its collar, so it can’t sneak pounce on you
Take your cat out for walks on a leash and harness – this is an excellent source of healthy stimulation
Never allow your cat to bite, scratch, or pounce on your hands
Avoid physical punishments for unwanted play behaviors
Do not confine your cat in a “time out” after it plays too roughly (this could worsen its temper and behavior)
Never react to a cat bite, scratch, or pounce with anger, a raised voice, or another form of aggression
Why Does My Cat Bite Me After I Pet Him?
This behavior is closely related to general gentle cat biting, discussed below. One moment, you and your kitty might be enjoying one another’s company, and the next, you’re getting swatted at.
Naturally, one of your first thoughts might be, “What the heck did I do?” Rest assured that most of the time, you didn’t actually do anything in particular. It’s just another one of your cat’s natural overstimulation responses.
Some behavioral experts refer to this behavior as “petting-induced aggression.” It’s quite common in cats, as they tend to have a love-hate relationship with physical affection. Since they’re not as social as dogs, petting and other types of touching are not a part of their standard instinctual repertoire. While they do occasionally enjoy being stroked, there are three theories as to why they’ll hate it at times:
Cats have a lower physical sensitivity threshold than dogs. Cats are a bit picky when it comes to receiving touchy affection from their humans. Your kitty might enjoy it initially, but the repetitive strokes might start to get on its nerves. (You might have the same reaction if someone was scratching your back for too long. After a few minutes, it’s just numbing and no longer welcome.)
Your cat may be in pain, or you touched a sensitive part of its body. You may not be aware of certain parts of your cat’s body that are either highly sensitive to certain pressure levels or in pain. This is more likely the case with older cats, as they’re more likely to develop problems with their joints and muscles. If you accidentally hurt it, it might snap or swat at you defensively.
Your cat may be trying to assert its dominance. Your cat may be a bit controlling and use this behavior as a way of maintaining control over your interactions. If you stop petting when your cat nips at you to say “enough,” you’re essentially granting them dominance in those situations.
Fortunately, these are all relatively easy triggers to identify and reasons to understand. You just need to spend enough time with your kitty to predict when the bite will happen to avoid it entirely.
Why Does My Cat Gently Bite Me?
Gentle cat bites might be closely related to the affectionate behaviors described above or they could be in a league of their own. Many people experience their cats biting them gently when the cat no longer wants to be petted.
So, for instance, imagine that you and your cat have been cuddling on the couch for a few hours. You’ve been mindlessly stroking its back or belly, but its purring has stopped, and it might have just stiffened up before nipping your hands or fingers. This is usually a sign that your cat is done being pet, and the bites are its way of telling you to back off.
Of course, this isn’t a healthy method of communication. The last thing you’d want is for a child to be petting your cat and miss a signal like this. You don’t want to reinforce this behavior by always complying with the cat bites’ message.
Instead, get to know your cat’s comforts and boundaries by noting when its body tenses up just before a bite using the tips below. Don’t wait for the cat’s bite, but respect its limits by ceasing any petting when you notice it’s stopped purring. It’s also best to avoid petting your cat in spots where it may not like, as this could inspire a nip, too.
How to Stop Cat Biting
Fortunately, love bites or even nipping due to irritation are relatively easy behaviors to manage (that is, if they haven’t developed into a more severe aggression problem). However, before you attempt to control the unwanted behavior, you’ll have to recognize the signs. Here are a few key behaviors that might indicate your cat is about to bite you for one reason or another:
The cat’s head is turning toward your hand (maybe unusually slowly), or it’s pawing at your hand
Thrashing or thumping: This is a clear sign that your cat is angry or annoyed.
Twitching (specifically the end of its tail): This is a hunting or playful behavior. Although it’s not aggressive, remember that pouncing on and nipping at your hands is unacceptable behavior.
Swishing: If your cat is slowly moving its tail in a side-to-side pattern, this signals that it’s focused on a specific target. This type of predatory behavior shows that your cat is getting ready to pounce. Move your hands away, and don’t allow your cat to get a hold of your fingers.
Quivering: This is similar to twitching. However, it’s easy to distinguish the difference since the tail will be straight up (so the whole tail is involved, rather than just the tip). This generally means that your cat is excited to see you. Note: If your cat is up against a wall when its tail is quivering, this could mean that your cat is urine marking.
Your cat has “airplane ears,” meaning they’re lying flat against its head, signaling irritation, frustration, or fear
The cat’s body posture is tense, with the back arched
The cat’s fur is standing up, called “piloerection”
Once you can recognize all these signs, you’ll have a functional foundation on which to base your correction methods. Here are a few suggestions on what those techniques should be.
Teach Your Cat Appropriate Play Behavior
One of the main reasons why your cat is biting you is because of overarousal during play. This problem tends to be more prevalent with kittens, especially those that grew up without their siblings (or with minimal time around their siblings).
As mentioned above, without having grown up with fellow kittens, your cat will not have had the opportunity to recognize when it’s hurting another person or animal during playtime. If this is the case, it’s more likely to nip, swat, pounce, and engage in other types of rough physical play. Although it’s best to stop these behaviors as early in life as possible, adults with these tendencies can still be corrected.
To begin teaching your cat how to play appropriately, you’ll need to first establish playtime boundaries. The most important one has been mentioned already so far: Never allow your cat to use any part of your body as a toy or target. The most likely body parts that your cat may latch onto include your hands, feet, and hair.
If you allow your cat to grab hold of these body parts too often, you’re effectively encouraging this behavior, which is unhelpful for both of you. However, correcting this behavior isn’t as simple as pulling your hand away – in fact, that’s the opposite of what you want to do.
Yanking your hand out of your cat’s mouth will only increase your risk of injury and infection, as you’re scraping your hand against its teeth. Plus, it might also encourage your cat to engage in even more predatory behavior. This is similar to the concept of not running away from an animal that’s chasing you – running will only trigger the animal to chase you even more.
Tips and Tricks for Ideal Play Times
One of the most important elements of teaching your cat appropriate play behavior is redirection. This means that you’re taking your cat’s attention away from something it shouldn’t be on (e.g., your fingers) and turning it toward the correct object (i.e., a toy). To redirect your cat’s aggression or overexcited play behavior (or train them before aggressive biting and other behavior sets in), use these tips:
Integrate multiple toys into your playtime. Cats love using several different types of objects to entertain themselves. While interactive toys like a mechanical flopping fish are an excellent choice for most kitties, this may not keep their attention for too long, as it only engages one aspect of their predatory instincts. Here are a few other kinds of toys to integrate into playtime:
Small toys your cat can pick up: Although large toys can be fun for your cat, at some point, it will want to pick the item up and walk around with it. This is why smaller, moderately-sized products like plush squeaky toys are ideal. (Plus, these make noises similar to distressed prey, which will undoubtedly spice up your cat’s recreation!)
Catnip toys: Many people support the use of catnip for olfactory stimulation as part of environmental enrichment for domestic cats. Essentially, it creates the cat equivalent of feeling “high” for 15-30 minutes after consumption or exposure. Thus, catnip toys are an excellent way to add another level of enjoyment to your cat’s playtime.
Scratching post: Scratching isn’t necessarily a part of a cat’s “play,” but it is a significant part of how they relax and relieve themselves when at home. The main objective of scratching is to place the cat’s scent on a specific object or surface. This also helps your cat get more comfortable for other parts of play, as it removes the transparent claw sheath.
Toys your cat can “kill:” Few things are more rewarding to your cat – or any predator – than being able to capture “kill” its prey after doing the hard work of chasing it down. So, it has to be able to pounce on the toy and stop it from a specific action sequence. This is why squeaky toys are so rewarding since they let out a “scream” like a little mouse.
Note: Even games involving catching prey can include you, too. For instance, the pet cat mice game is the kitty’s equivalent of whack-a-mole. Not only does your cat get to pounce, but it gets to swat and attack the artificial critters as you reveal them in each hole. This can be pretty fulfilling and a lovely bonding experience.
Encourage your kitty to “wrestle” with certain toys. Eventually, your cat will want to wrestle with something. If you’re not up to getting another cat, your next best course of action is to designate a specific toy for the job. Look for a larger toy that your cat can’t quite pick up and carry around, and that it won’t end up confusing for your hand.
Note: If your cat does accidentally (or purposely) grab your hand while wrestling with their toy, just give them a sharp “no.” Do not, under any circumstances, hit your cat or physically reprimand it. This will almost definitely create a fear response, leading to even more unacceptable behavior.
Restrict playtime with toys to only 10-15-minute intervals. This one is tough since it can be so much fun to bring certain toys into the mix. Yet, you have to be smart about it: Too much time with specific toys – especially interactive ones – will inevitably lead your cat to get bored with it. Switch up the toys every 15 minutes maximum or give your cat short playtimes throughout the day.
Discourage Hunting Behavior
It’s not always easy to recognize when your cat is behaving unacceptably. This is partially because some kittens’ unruly behaviors are more cute to us than anything else. (Admit it – when you see your little kitty pouncing on your foot and trying to gnaw on your toes, you think it’s flippin’ adorable!) Still, you must be able to take a step back and recognize when a behavior requires correction, even if it’s cute.
One of the primary behaviors that fall under this category is “hunting.” Think about the last time you walked around the house with a kitten nearby. It might have followed you around quite closely, stalking you and watching you from afar.
At some point, you may have noticed the little bugger chasing you and leaping onto your pant leg. If you happened to be sitting down on a couch, it likely had a go at your hair. This is natural hunting behavior that helps the little one develop its eye-paw coordination.
Although it is generally harmless – given that the cat is going after your clothing as opposed to you or sensitive body parts – it can lead to bad habits in the future. In these cases, the most reliable way to discourage your kitten from hunting you and tearing at your clothing is to, again, give it a sharp “no” for every swipe at your clothes. No hitting or imprisoning it in its carrier – just “no” and preventing further hunting opportunities.
Avoid Situations that Induce a Fear Response
Another one of the main reasons why your cat might bite you is out of fear. Fear responses are among the riskiest motivations for cat biting, as they’re harder to control and correct. There aren’t always rational explanations as to why your cat might have reacted fearfully to something.
Plus, even if you can identify the specific circumstance, item, animal, or person that spooked your cat, it can take a long time to desensitize your cat to this stimulus. With this in mind, it’s best to give your cat a generally peaceful life at home and exercise discretion on which types of excitements you allow to disrupt your routine.
For example, are you planning to invite people over? If so, think about whether your cat has interacted with other people before. If not, it might be a good idea to give your cat a “safe room” to minimize the stress as much as possible. If so, consider how much your cat might be triggered by certain noise levels or by your guests’ pets.
These precautions ensure that you don’t have to wait for something terrible to happen to your cat to learn what might scare them and what might not. Being proactive and preventing fear-inducing situations is the best way to go.
Now, what happens if your cat does wind up in a scary situation (i.e., visiting the vet in its carrier)? In this case, the most productive thing to do would be to reinforce desirable responses with treats. For instance, if a fearful cat swats at you, respond with a firm “no,” walk away, and do not engage further.
When it calms down and either lowers its hackles, stops hissing, or allow you to pet it, offer a treat to show that this behavior is ideal. This will make it clear to your cat which behaviors are acceptable and which are not.
Stopping Your Cat from Biting Other Cats
Not all cat biting is directed at humans. Other cats get bitten, too, unfortunately. If you live in a multi-cat household, it’s crucial to know how to stop them from nipping at one another. Most of the time, this is a relatively straightforward (but lengthy) process. Biting in this context is much easier to manage, as the reason is typically territoriality.
Even if they share the same household, cats can be highly territorial and will take certain rooms or entire sides of the house as their own. If another one of your cats wants to venture into that portion of the home, it may be putting itself at risk of getting beaten or attacked. Here’s an expert-recommended way of handling aggressive biting and related behavior in this context:
Reintroduce the two cats (and don’t rush it!). Your cats may have had a falling out if they’re behaving this way toward one another. If so, you need to help reestablish their relationship by confining them to their own rooms and giving them quality time together for 30 minutes every few days.
Allow them to refamiliarize themselves with each other’s scents. After you’ve given them some occasional quality time together a few times, let them get more in tune with each other’s scents. Place them in separate carriers and position them on opposite sides of the same room. This way, they’ll see and smell each other without the risk of fighting. Repeat this over several days.
Note: To further emphasize that this is a positive experience, feed your cats while they’re in their carriers. If they do not eat, put more distance between the two and do not force them to eat.
Put the cats on leashes and repeat Step 2 without the carriers. Repeat this over several days.
Release the two cats to interact freely. Only do this if you’re confident that they’ve reestablished their relationship and will not fight. If you have any doubt that the interaction will not go well, do not release the cats.
Consult a veterinarian if you’re unsure about how to handle interactions between your two (or more) aggressive cats. In extreme cases, your vet might even suggest getting both your kitties on medication that helps manage overstimulation and extreme behavior.
Cat biting is a very bad habit that you need to nip in the bud as early as possible. It emerges in many different contexts, from overexcitement during play to fearful reactions in scary or intimidating circumstances.
The best way to get control of your cat’s nipping behavior is to teach appropriate play behaviors, learn when your cat no longer wants to be pet, and be proactive in managing aggression between territorial cats.
There are plenty of toys that can help your cat understand what is and is not appropriate during playtime. Peruse through the Catzio store to find items that will keep your cat engaged and away from pouncing on your feet and hands.
About the Author
My name is Jazmin "Sunny" Murphy, and I am a science communicator and web content writer. Since 2015, I've been producing scientific content that is written in plain English. My love for life science has influenced my professional and academic aspirations since I was a kid. I hold a Bachelor of Science in Zoology and 21 units of a Master's education in Environmental Policy & Management (concentration: Fish and Wildlife Management). You can learn more about me and my science writing and reporting work at my website, Black Flower Writing Services.